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Gregory_Lewis comments on Concerns with Intentional Insights - Effective Altruism Forum

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Comment author: Gregory_Lewis 24 October 2016 06:30:11PM *  32 points [-]

My fellow contributors and I aimed in this document to have as little of an 'editorial line' as possible: we were not all in complete agreement on what this should be, so thought it better to discuss the appropriate interpretation of the data we provide in the comments. I offer mine below: in addition to the disclaimers and disclosures above, I stress I am speaking for myself, and not on behalf of any other contributor.

I believe InIn and Tsipursky are toxic to the EA community. I strongly recommend that EAs do not spend time or money on InIn going forward, nor any future projects Tsipursky may initiate. Insofar as there may be ways for EA organisations to insulate themselves from InIn, I urge them to avail themselves of these opportunities.

A key factor in this extremely adverse judgement is my extremely adverse view of InIn's product. InIn's material is woeful: a mess of misguided messaging (superdonor, the t-shirts, 'effective giving' versus 'effective altruism', etc. etc.), crowbarred in aspirational pop-psychology 'insights', tacky design and graphics, and oleaginous self-promotion seeping through wherever it can (see, for example, the free sample of Gleb's erstwhile 'amazon bestseller'). Although mercifully little of InIn's content has anything to do with EA, whatever does reflects poorly on it (c.f. prior remarks about people collaborating with Tsipursky as a damage limitation exercise). I have yet to meet an EA with view of InIn's content better than mediocre-to-poor.

Due to this, the fact that the social 'reach' of InIn is mostly illusory may be a blessing in disguise: I am genuinely uncertain whether low-quality promotion of sort-of EA is better than nothing given it may add noise to higher quality signal notwithstanding the (likely fairly scant) counterfactual donations it may elicit. In any case, that it is illusory is a black mark against InIn's instrumental competencies necessary for being an effective outreach organisation.

What I find especially shocking is that this meagre output is the result of gargantuan amounts of time spent. Tsipursky states across assistants, volunteers, and staff, about 1000 hours are spent on InIn each week: if so, InIn is likely the leader among all EA orgs for hours spent - yet, by any measure of outputs, it is comfortably among the worst.

Would that it just be a problem of InIn being ineffective. The document above illustrates not only a wide-ranging pattern of at-best-shady practices, but a meta-pattern of Tsipursky persisting with these practices despite either being told not to or saying himself he wasn't doing them or won't do them again. This record challenging to reconcile with Tsipursky acting in good faith, although I can fathom the possibility given the breadth and depth of his incompetence. Regardless of intention, I am confident the pattern of dodgy behaviour will continue with at most cosmetic modification, and it will continue to prove recalcitrant to any attempts to explain or persuade Tsipursky of his errors.

These issues incur further costs to Effective Altruism. There are obvious risks that donors 'fall for' InIn's self-promotion and donate to it instead of something better. There are similar reputational risks of InIn's behaviour damaging the EA brand independent of any risks from its content. Internally, acts like this may act to burn important commons in how individuals and organisations interact in the EA community. Finally, although in part self-inflicted, monitoring and reporting these things sucks up time and energy from other activities: although my time is basically worthless, the same cannot be said for the other contributors.

In sum: InIn's message is at best a cargo cult version of EA with dubious value. Despite being an outreach organisation, it is incompetent at fundamental competencies for its mission. A shocking number of volunteer hours are being squandered. Tsipursky is incapable of conducting himself to commonsense standards of probity, leave alone higher ones that should apply to the leader of an EA organisation. This behaviour incurs further external and internal costs to the EA movement. I see essentially no prospect of these problems being substantially remediated such that InIn's benefit to the community outweigh its costs, still moreso such that it would be competitive with other EA groups or initiatives. Stay away.

[Edit: I previously said '[InIn] is comfortably the worst [in terms of outputs]', it has been pointed out there may be other groups with similarly poor performance, so I've (much belatedly) changed the wording.]

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 25 October 2016 03:01:40AM *  6 points [-]

[This was originally a comment calling for Gleb to leave the EA community with various supporting arguments, but I've decided I don't endorse online discussions as a mechanism for asking people to leave EA. See this comment of mine for more.]

Comment author: Carl_Shulman 25 October 2016 03:34:47AM *  8 points [-]

When I first talked to Gleb about EA, he offered an objection I don't remember (something about it being too cold or too demanding). He became interested a while after I mentioned that EAs might want to fund his rational thinking outreach work. I'm not sure Gleb has ever given money to an EA charity that wasn't his own.

He wrote that he is a 'monthly donor' to CFAR.

On the other hand a cynic might note that he has used his interactions with CFAR to promote himself and his organization, e.g. his linked favorable review of CFAR comes with a few plugs for Intentional Insights, and CFAR (or rather the erroneous acronym-unpacking 'Center for Advanced Rationality') appeared as a collaboration in InIn promotional documents. My understanding is that the impression that he was aligned with CFAR (and EA) had also made some CFAR donors more open to InIn fundraising pitches.

He has also taken the Giving What We Can pledge, but I don't know what that means. He has said he and his wife fund most of InIn's budget (which would presumably be more than 10% of his income) and claims that it is highly effective, so might take that to satisfy his pledge.

[Disclosure: my wife is the executive director of CFAR, but I am speaking only for myself.]

Comment author: Kathy 25 October 2016 01:50:47PM *  3 points [-]

I suspect the reason InIn's quality is low is because, given their reputation disadvantage, they cannot attract and motivate the best writers and volunteers. I strongly relate to your concerns about the damage that could be done if InIn does not improve. I have severely limited my own involvement with InIn because of the same things you describe. My largest time contribution by far has been in giving InIn feedback about reputation problems and general quality. A while back, I felt demoralized with the problems, myself, and decided to focus more on other things instead. That Gleb is getting so much attention for these problems right now has potential to be constructive.

Gleb can't improve InIn until he really understands the problem that's going on. I think this is why Intentional Insights has been resistant to change. I hope I provided enough insight in my comment about social status instincts for it to be possible for us all to overcome the inferential distance.

I'm glad to see that so many people have come together to give Gleb feedback on this. It's not just me trying to get through to him by myself anymore. I think it's possible for InIn to improve up to standards with enough feedback and a lot of work on Gleb's part. I mean, that is a lot of work for Gleb, but given what I've seen of his interest in self-improvement and his level of dedication to InIn, I believe Gleb is willing to go through all of that and do whatever it takes.

Really understanding what has gone wrong with Intentional Insights is hard, and it will probably take him months. After he understands the problems better, he will need a new plan for the organization. All of that is a lot of work. It will take a lot of time.

I think Gleb is probably willing to do it. This is a man who has a tattoo of Intentional Insights on his forearm. Because I believe Gleb would probably do just about anything to make it work, I would like to suggest an intervention.

In other words, perhaps we should ask him to take a break from promoting Intentional Insights for a while in order to do a bunch of self-improvement, make his major updates and plan out a major version upgrade for Intentional Insights.

Perhaps I didn't get the memo, but I don't think we've tried organizing in order to demand specific constructive actions first before talking about shutting down Intentional Insights and/or driving Gleb out of the EA movement.

The world does need an org that promotes rationality to a broader audience... and rationalists aren't exactly known for having super people skills... Since Gleb is so dedicated and is willing to work really hard, and since we've all finally organized in public to do something about this, maybe we aught to try using this new source of leverage to heave him onto the right track.

Comment author: Gregory_Lewis 30 October 2016 08:05:08AM 7 points [-]

Hello Kathy,

I have read your replies on various comment threads on this post. If you'll forgive the summary, your view is that Tsipursky's behaviour may arise from some non-malicious shortcomings he has, and that, with some help, these can be mitigated, thus leading InIn to behave better and do more good. In medicalese, I'm uncertain of the diagnosis, strongly doubt the efficacy of the proposed management plan, and I anticipate a bleak prognosis. As I recommend generally, I think your time and laudable energy is better spent elsewhere.

A lot of the subsequent discussion has looked at whether Tsipursky's behaviour is malicious or not. I'd guess in large part it is not: deep incompetence combined with being self-serving and biased towards ones org to succeed probably explain most of it - regrettably, Tsipursky's response to this post (e.g. trumped-up accusations against Jeff and Michelle, pre-emptive threats if his replies are downvoted, veiled hints at 'wouldn't it be bad if someone in my position started railing against EA', etc.) seem to fit well with malice.

Yet this is fairly irrelevant. Tsipursky is multiply incompetant: at creating good content, at generating interest in his org (i.e. almost all of its social media reach is ilusory), at understanding the appropriate ambit for promotional efforts, at not making misleading statements, and at changing bad behaviour. I am confident that any EA I know in a similar position would not have performed as badly. I highly doubt this can all be traced back to a single easy-to-fix flaw. Furthermore, I understand multiple people approached Tsipursky multiple times about these issues; the post documents problems occurring over a number of months. The outside view is not favourable to yet further efforts.

In any case, InIn's trajectory in the EA community is probably fairly set at this point. As I write this, InIn is banned from the FB group, CEA has officially disavowed it, InIn seems to have lost donors and prospective donations from EAs, and my barometer of 'EA public opinion' is that almost all EAs who know of InIn and Tsipursky have very adverse attitudes towards both. Given the understandable reticience of EAs towards corporate action like this, one can anticipate these decisions have considerable inertia. A nigh-Damascene conversion of Tsipursky and InIn would be required for these things to begin to move favourably to InIn again.

In light of all this, attempting to 'reform InIn' now seems almost as ill-starred as trying to reform a mismanaged version of homeopaths without borders: such a transformation is required to be surely worth starting afresh. The opportunity cost is also substantial as there are other better performing EA outreach orgs (i.e. all of them), which promise far greater returns on the margin for basically any return one migh be interested in. Please help them out instead.

Comment author: Kathy 30 October 2016 04:01:55PM 3 points [-]

I'm not completely sure what's going on with Gleb, but I feel a great deal of concern for people with Asperger's, and I think it made me overly sympathetic in this case. Thank you for this.

Comment author: Elizabeth 30 October 2016 06:10:30PM 11 points [-]

One thing to consider is that too much charity for Gleb is actively harmful for people with ASDs in the community.

If I am at a party of a trusted friend and know they've only invited people the trust, and someone hurts my feelings, I'm likely to ascribe it to a misunderstanding and talk it out with them. If I'm at a party where lots of people have been jerks to me before, and someone hurts my feelings, I'm likely to assume this person is a jerk too and withdraw.

By saying "I'm updating" and then committing the same problems again, Gleb is lessening the value of the words. He is teaching people it's not worth correcting others, because they won't change. This is most harmful to the people who most need the most direct feedback and the longest lead time to incorporate it.

Comment author: Kathy 02 November 2016 04:20:45AM 3 points [-]

Wow. More excellent arguments. More updates on my side. You're on fire. I almost never meet people who can change my mind this much. I would like to add you as a friend.